Hoop Hogs notebook: No. 14 Arkansas vs. Gardner-Webb preview, Runnin’ Bulldogs scout, UA keys to success, Muss musings

By Kevin McPherson
on 2023-11-09 13:49 PM

By Kevin McPherson

LITTLE ROCK — No guarantees but it could be another game where Head Hog Eric Musselman empties his bench in both halves while experimenting with personnel packages and lineups when the 14th-ranked Arkansas Razorbacks host Gardner-Webb on Friday at Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville, marking the second of four consecutive home games to start the 2023-24 campaign.

The Hoop Hogs (1-0, No. 12 in KenPom.com’s rankings) and Runnin’ Bulldogs (1-0, No. 185 in KenPom) will tip around 7 p.m. CT on Friday (SEC Network Plus livestream).

Both teams opened their seasons on Monday with a victory — Arkansas 93-59 over Alcorn State, and Gardner-Webb 98-58 over Division II Erskine.

Against Alcorn State, Arkansas was able to get into transition from the outset while heating up from distance midway through the first half en route to building several 20-plus-point leads in the first 20 minutes before staking a 24-point advantage at the break, and it was more of the same in final 20 minutes as the Hogs had their way at both ends of the floor while building as much as a 37-point lead as all 13 scholarship players saw the floor in both halves.

The Hogs’ two leading scorers in the October exhibition season — Khalif Battle and Tramon Mark — were comfortable as they were connecting from all three levels on Monday with Battle posting a game-high 21 points (5-of-9 field goals, including 3-of-6 from 3, and 8-of-9 free throws) to go with 3 rebounds and 2 assists and Mark contributing 16 points (6-of-8 field goals, including 4-of-6 from 3) to go with 3 assists, 1 rebound, and 1 steal.

“We’re running plays for him, really explosive scorer,” Musselman said of Battle, who’s emerged from recent injury issues to show off his scoring prowess. “Great foul shooter. So, late games we need him to have the ball in his hands if we’re in the bonus. He was phenomenal tonight. And he can rise up, he has deep range. Shoots with great confidence. He’s a really good offensive player.

“I think in the last, like, 10 days KB has been so bought in. Today at shoot around he was as vocal as anybody defensively. Like, super, super vocal. I mean, I think he knows if you want to get on the floor here you’ve got to defend, and he’s doing that. You’ve also got to defend with intelligence and understand when the other team is in the bonus and how to space your guy out. I think he’s done a really good job of that. Some other guys have got to learn. We had two guys foul out. I mean, 2 guys, 10 fouls in 20 minutes combined. Like, you want to be aggressive but you’ve also got to understand how to temper that aggressive when in fact the opposing team is in the bonus.”

Star sophomore forward Trevon Brazile started and had 13 points (4-of-5 field goals, including 1-of-2 from 3, and 4-of-4 free throws), 6 rebounds, and 1 steal before being ejected at the 10:48 mark of the second half for running onto the court from the bench after a Braves player was whistled for a flagrant-1 foul for throwing Battle to the floor on a drive.

“We were a little conservative on the front end (brining Brazile back to game action after a knee injury), and now he’s able to play the way that he’s capable of playing,” Musselman said. “He’s improved as a shooter. I thought athletically tonight, he rose above a lot of people. Yeah, I would say he’s 100% healthy and kind of fearless the way he’s jumping and rebounding in traffic.”

Senior guard El Ellis started and finished with 8 points (3-of-6 field goals, including 1-of-4 from 3, and 1-of-2 free throws), 4 assists, 1 steal, and 3 turnovers in 23 minutes. Senior forward / center Jalen Graham — he missed both of the Hogs’ exhibition games due to back spasms – returned to his reserve role and had an outstanding 8-point (on 4-of-6 field goals and 0-of-2 free throws) and 8-rebound (led the team) showing in only 14 minutes. Star senior guard Davonte “Devo” Davis started and had 5 points, 5 rebounds, a game-high 5 assists, 1 steal, and ZERO turnovers in 24 minutes.

Senior 4/5-combo Chandler Lawson started at center and had 2 points (2-of-2 free throws), 2 rebounds, 1 steal, and 1 turnover in 8 minutes. Senior center Makhi Mitchell played only 4 minutes off the bench and his only game statistic was committing a foul. Sophomore wing Joseph Pinion had 7 points (1-of-2 shooting from 3 and 4-of-4 free throws), 2 steals, 1 rebound, and 1 block in 13 minutes. Senior forward Denijay Harris (5 points, 7 rebounds, 2 assists), freshman center Baye Fall (4 points, 4 rebounds, 2 blocks, 2 steals, and 5 fouls in 9 minutes), senior wing Jeremiah Davenport (3 points on 1-of-6 shooting from 3), and freshman guard Layden Blocker (1 assist, 1 steal, and 5 fouls in 10 minutes) all contributed production in the win.

“I thought (Graham) was great,” Musselman said. “He rebounded the ball with some physicality, kind of grab and go. He got a defensive rebound and pushed it with some good pace. I thought he played really good. I mean, we’re not going to play 13 guys in a half. That’s just not — and guys are playing their ways into rotations and guys are playing their ways out, that’s just kind of how it happens. But we’ll probably shorten the rotation. When that is, I don’t know. The game will dictate it. But we’ve got a lot of areas that we have to get better at for sure.

“(Devo) had five, five and five. So I thought across the board, he played really well. Made some great passes. The most important thing is Devo didn’t have a turnover. I thought our point guard play — we got to take better care of the ball, for sure. Maybe Devo slides over there and plays a little bit more point guard. We’ll go back and watch the film and discuss that.”

Graham was relieved to return to game action.

“I’m just glad to be back with my teammates,” Graham said. “Sitting out from the sidelines is always tough. Yeah, it felt good just running up and down and contributing to a win.”

After starting 1-of-6 shooting from 3, the Razorbacks made 11 of their final 24 attempts from distance to finish 12-of-30 beyond the arc (40.0%). Overall, Arkansas shot 28-of-54 from the field (51.9%) and the team made 25-of-37 at the foul line (67.6%). The Hogs had 20 assists on their 28 made field goals, and the team made 238 passes on the offensive end of the floor to easily surpass Head Hog Eric Musselman’s preference of his offense making at least 200 passes per game.

Defensively, Arkansas held ASU to under 40% shooting from the field (20-of-51 for 39.2%), and the Hogs minimized the Braves’ three-point shooting to a 3-of-9 effort for 33.3%). Alcorn State made 16-of-26 free throws (61.5%).

Arkansas was only plus-1 in turnovers (16-15) but the Razorbacks enjoyed a lopsided 22-10 edge in points-off-turnovers. The Hogs dominated the glass (44-26), which included a 14-7 advantage on the offensive boards. Arkansas won points-in-the-paint (32-30), fastbreak scoring (18-13), bench scoring (49-17), steals (10-7), blocks (4-3), and assists (20-7).

Scouting the Gardner-Webb Runnin’ Bulldogs

Gardner-Webb’s dominant, 40-point win over the Erskine Flying Fleet on Monday was a great start to the ’23-24 season for the Runnin’ Bulldogs, who are picked to finish in the top half of the 9-team Big South Conference after going 10-8 to finish tied for 4th place in league play in ’22-23. The team was 15-16 overall last season.

Eleventh-yeard head coach Tim Craft achieved the program’s only NCAA Tournament appearance in ’18-19.

Leading the way in ’23-24 is senior 6-1 guard DQ Nicholas, a BSC all-league selection a season ago, who finished with 13 points (4-of-8 field goals, including 4-of-6 from 3, and 1-of-3 free throws), 5 rebounds, 3 assists, and 1 turnover in 24 minutes in Monday’s season-opener. He averaged 12.5 points, 3.9 rebounds, 3.1 assists, 1.3 steals, and 2.0 turnovers in 30.5 minutes per game in ’22-23 while shooting 45.6% from the field, including 33.3% from 3, and 65.4% from the free throw line.

It’s a veteran group of returning Runnin’ Bulldogs as the team also has senior 6-4 starting guard Caleb Robinson (14 points, 6 rebounds, 1 assist, and 2 turnovers in 16 minutes on Monday); senior 6-3 starting guard Lucas Stieber (2 points, 2 rebounds, 2 blocks, 1 assist in 21 minutes on Monday); junior 5-11 starting guard Julien Soumaoro (8 points, 3 assists, and 1 rebound on Monday); junior 6-7 reserve guard Brendan Mykalcio (15 points, 11 rebounds, 2 assists, and 1 steal in 22 minutes on Monday); junior 6-7 reserve forward Ademide Badmus (3 points, 4 rebounds, and 2 assists on Monday); and senior 6-4 reserve guard Quest Aldridge (7 points, 2 rebounds, 1 assist, and 1 steal on Monday).

Newcomers are senior 6-9 starting transfer forward Cheickna Sissoko (6 points, 5 rebounds, 3 blocks, and 1 steal in 12 minutes on Monday); junior 6-10 reserve transfer forward Isaiah Richards (3 points, 9 rebounds, 1 assist, and 1 block in 15 minutes on Monday); freshman 5-11 reserve guard Darryl Simmons II (15 points, 1 rebound, and 1 assist in 14 minutes on Monday); freshman 6-2 reserve guard Shahar Lazar (12 points, 3 rebounds, and 2 assists in 16 minutes on Monday); and

A year ago, Gardner-Webb ranked 49th in D1 in opponents’ points-per-game at 65.5, which means another team invading BWA with intentions to dictate a slow, deliberate pace. In theory, the Runnin’ Bulldogs could test Arkansas’ defensive rebounding as Gardner-Webb ranked 30th in D1 in offensive rebounds per game at 8.1 last season, which was part of the team’s 31.8 total boards per game that ranked 47th in D1. The ‘Dogs were stingy defending teams inside the three-point line, yielding only 21.9 made two-point field goals per game to rank 16th in D1 and only 46.0% on two-point field goals to rank 32nd in D1. Gardner-Webb averaged 7.2 steals (98th in D1) while forcing 14.1 turnovers per outing a season ago.

The Runnin’ Bulldogs were successful offensively shooting inside the arc with a 53.3% season efficiency on two-point field goals in ’22-23.

Not a good three-point shooting team a year ago (only 6.3 makes per game to rank 292nd in D1 with 33.6% efficiency to rank 211th), Gardner-Webb made 14-of-36 from distance (38.9%) on Monday. That volume of makes and takes from distance actually exceeded what Arkansas managed in its season-opener (12-of-20 from 3 for 40%).

Keys to success for Arkansas

– Same as against Alcorn State, there is no matchup — not individual, frontline corps, backcourt corps, tangible, or intangible facet of the game — that favors Gardner-Webb, so the mission once again is for Arkansas is to not play down to the level of competition and give its opponent hope.

– Three-point shootout? The teams combined to attempt 66 triples in their season-openers, with a collective 26 makes and efficiency that was at or near 40% for each team. Musselman has a knack for scheming to limit teams’ three-point attempts while driving down their efficiency, and for once he has a roster with more than a handful of competent three-point shooters. It might turn into an interesting perimeter game at times, and the goal for the Hogs is to have another lopsided advantage beyond the arc like they did against Alcorn State (the Braves managed only 3-of-9 from 3 for 33.3% compared to the Hogs’ 12-of-30 for 40%).

– Turnover game. The Hogs are winning these battles, but the margins are thin as the program continues to suffer self-inflicted wounds while not taking care of the basketball (15 giveaways in each matchup — No. 3 Purdue in exhibition play and Alcorn State). Arkansas did play all 13 scholarship players in each half against ASU, so that constant shuttling in of players likely played a hand in some of the sloppiness. And though it may not be a must to come out ahead in the turnover department to defeat the Bulldogs on Friday, at some point Musselman would like to see his team consistently dial down on the miscues and there is not better time to do that than the present.

– Inside-out dominance, imposing will in transition, clamping down on defense and contesting every shot. The Hogs won most of these battles against both Purdue and Alcorn State, although both foes were able to stay close in points-in-the-paint, which means Musselman would like to see his team be more physical and effective battling around the basket. Same as against ASU, the Hogs have the pieces to make this an ugly point differential on the scoreboard against Gardner-Webb, and that could provide an opportunity for Musselman to continue to experiment with personnel packages that could include traditional, small-ball, and big lineups as he may once again play all 13 scholarship Hogs.

Muss musings

– On the Gardner-Webb Runnin’ Bulldogs: ”Well, Gardner-Webb has a guard that’s an all-league guard. He’s a returner. He’s an all-league guy, so we’ll have to do a good job defensively on him. They scored a lot of points tonight (season-opener on Monday). I know Michael was watching them, game before our game. At halftime, he was either looking at the score or something on the computer with Gardner-Webb. They’re well-coached. Again, I’ll really dive in tonight, but for sure their guard is a handful and we’ve got to learn his tendencies as quick as we possibly can. I just think having played against them we felt like they were really well coached. That they understood their roles. They have an opportunity to potentially win their league. The team we just played tonight (Alcorn State on Monday), those guys and Texas Southern, one of those two teams is probably going to win that league. Gardner-Webb is always, we feel, really well coached. Like I said, they have a talented guard I know as a staff we’ve already been talking about him.”

– On his team’s depth: ”I definitely think the depth is something we see in practice every day. If you look at the plus-minus tonight though (against Alcorn State on Monday), there was some guys where there is a little bit of a drop in the plus-minus tonight than we’ve had in the past.”

– On volume scorer Khalif Battle and work ethic of multiple Hogs: ”I think with his foot, he’s broken both of them. The right and the left. I think he felt uncomfortable in the shoes and it kind of flared up. But when we signed him, we felt like he was as explosive a scorer as we’ve seen. He can rise up. He can get his own shot. He’s got deep range. He can make his foul shots and he can draw fouls. I’m not surprised with how he’s played. I thought he may be a little rusty, but he’s a gym rat. He lives in the gym. We had eight guys on the day of a game lift weights on their own. That hasn’t happened since I’ve been in the NBA. In that league guys do lift on the day of the game. But I was in their working out and I was like ‘That’s the seventh guy. That’s the eighth.’ I’ve never seen anything like it before 10 in the morning guys doing it on their own. Today was not a lift day. We had a bunch of guys shooting over here. The work ethic right now amongst the group is really impressive.”

– On Battle and Mark backcourt combo: ”I think those two guys against a zone are going to do damage. Those two guys can do damage one on one. T-Mark against Purdue played a lot of point guard for us, and I didn’t play him at that position tonight at all. Probably slide him over there at times. In hindsight, I tried to get everybody in the game and give everybody an opportunity. I’ll probably go back tonight and self-critique that I played him there in a game that was back and forth against the No. 3 team in the country and then tonight I didn’t give him an opportunity to play the point. I need him to get some reps there.”

Hoop Hogs updates and tidbits

– Musselman has never had a Razorbacks team lose a non-conference game at BWA as his teams are 34-0 in such matchups. He’s 96-42 overall as Head Hog, which includes a 51-9 record against non-conference opponents and a 45-33 mark against SEC foes (both marks include postseason results).

– The Hogs are 2-0 all-time against Gardner-Webb, which includes an 86-69 home win in November 2021 (during the ’21-22 season) and a 79-63 home win in November 2004 (during the ’04-05 season).

– Arkansas moved up two spots in KenPom.com’s national rankings for Division 1, going from No. 14 to No. 12 after the team’s season-opening win over Alcorn State. Arkansas checks in at preseason No. 14 in both the Associated Press and USA Today Coaches Top 25 polls with both set to release their first in-season rankings on Monday, Nov. 13.

– The Razorbacks were projected as an NCAAT 4-seed in the most-recent Bracketology update by ESPN’s Joe Lunardi released on Tuesday, Nov. 7.

– After the Gardner-Webb tilt, Arkansas will host the third of four consecutive home games at BWA against Old Dominion at 7 p.m. CT, Monday, Nov. 13 (livestream via SEC Network Plus).

– Sophomore forward Trevon Brazile on Monday was selected to the preseason 50-player watch list for the prestigious postseason Naismith Trophy National Player of the Year award. In the previous week, Brazile was included among the 20 players named to the watch list for the postseason Karl Malone Award, which goes to the nation’s best forward in D1. Prior to that, junior wing Tramon Mark was included among the 20 players named to the watch list for the postseason Jerry West Award, which goes to the nation’s best shooting guard in Division 1. Brazile and senior guard Davonte “Devo” Davis picked up preseason recognition as All SEC first- and second-team selections, respectively, by SEC coaches and media.

-Hogville is your one-stop shop for complete 2023-24 Arkansas Razorbacks men’s basketball coverage (schedule, results, and game articles are linked here: https://forums.hogville.net/index.php?topic=756493.0) plus ongoing analysis including our game-to-game stock-risers (linked here: https://forums.hogville.net/index.php?topic=760506.0).

(Last updated: 2023-11-09 13:49 PM)